Chicago 10

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Sundance Film Festival

PARK CITY -- "Chicago 10" accurately catches the moment when politics, dissent and celebrityhood first collided in this country in 1968. What it doesn't do, which filmmaker Brett Morgen says he wanted to do, is draw a parallel between contemporary America and the anti-Vietnam war movement, which will mobilize the youth in this country. The movie's main difficulty is that it fundamentally fails to explain what drove tens of thousands of people into the streets in 1968.

"Chicago 10" makes a fascinating opening-night film for the Sundance Film Festival, not only because of its experimental mix of archival footage and animation. While this festival normally prefers comedies or feel-good movies for its first night, in 2007 it is willing to open with an overt political statement, which resulted in front-page coverage in the Salt Lake Tribune. This make speak to the times we live in and for that reason "Chicago 10" might get limited distribution.

But the filmmaker's technique and his inability to confront the political legacy of the '60s and '70s put audiences at arm's length from the story he wants to tell. Instead of our watching a challenging political document, we are watching history albeit a fascinating one that does capture some of the experiences of that era.

The movie operates on parallel tracts. Morgen has ransacked film archives for considerable eye-opening footage of events leading up to the Democratic Party Convention in Chicago in 1968 -- the anti-war movement leaders' decision to put on a festival of peace to counter the convention and Mayor Richard Daley's determination to deny permits and turn Chicago into a police state. This footage gives a sense of the brutal repression peaceful demonstrators at civil rights and anti-war demonstrations of that era experienced.

The other tract is to dramatize the federal trial in Chicago a year later against the protesters, where the government hand-picked eight defendants, singled out because they were leaders of the various movements. To do this, Morgen came up with a brilliant idea. Rather than employing talking-head interviews or restaging the trial with actors, Morgen uses motion-capture animation with an impressive cast of actors to do the voices of the key characters. Because the trial was something of a circus anyway, portraying it as a cartoon works brilliantly.

The Yippies Abbie Hoffman (Hank Azaria) and Jerry Rubin (Mark Ruffalo) conceived of the protest as political theater so they naturally turn the courtroom into a comic display of their disregard for authority and, not incidentally, achieve rock-star celebrityhood in doing so. Renowned pacifist David Dellinger (Dylan Baker) is more sober-minded and serious. Black Panther Bobby Seale (Jeffrey Wright) is so vocal in demanding his rights, that the judge has him bound, gagged and handcuffed to a chair. Then there is Judge Julius Hoffman (Roy Scheider) himself, who clearly loses control of the case and clearly is deeply prejudiced against the defense.

The entertainment value of this cartoon trial is high, but a political connection is missing. The film fails to explore the crisis of conscience that drove both the eight defendants and the millions they represented. The protest movements grew out of a realization that how one lives one's life is a political act and how people must take responsibility for their government's tragically absurd policies, both in a war far from home and its racial segregation at home.

The protest movement spanned four social segments: the pacifists, the politicos, the counter-culture and black power movements. All were on trial but Morgen's cartoon focuses on personalities over movements and caricature over substance.

The screenwriter-director concentrates heavily on the theatrical aspects of the trial, especially the antics of Hoffman and Rubin. Their clowning and speeches aren't half as amusing as Morgen seems to think, which perhaps demonstrates how dated yesteryear's rhetoric and concepts of charisma can be.

What Morgen ignores are the politics of culture and, pivotally, the politics of the counter-culture. Everyone's behavior in that courtroom stems from a set of values and beliefs, from the prosecution and judge's overweening sense of decorum, entitlement and privilege to the defense's distrust and contempt for their authority.

Production values are slick with an overlay of music including rap, reggae and other genres not in existence at the time. These might connect with the younger generation but the music often is distracting.       

CHICAGO 10
Participant Productions and River Road Entertainment in association with Consolidated Documentaries and Public Road Productions
Credits:
Writer/Director: Brett Morgen
Producers: Brett Morgen, Graydon Carter
Executive producers: William Pohlad, Laura Bickford
Music: Jeff Danna
Animation: Curious Pictures
Additional animation: Asterisk, Yowza Animation
Editor: Stuart Levy
Additional editing: Kristina Boden
Voice Cast:
Abbie Hoffman, Allen Ginsberg: Hank Azaria
David Dellinger, David Stahl: Dylan Baker
Thomas Foran: Nick Nolte
Jerry Rubin: Mark Ruffalo
Judge Hoffman: Roy Scheider
William Kunstler: Liev Schreiber
Bobby Seale: Jeffrey Wright
Running time -- 103 minutes
No MPAA rating

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